Bako, Smoltz team up to boost fired-up Braves
By John Donovan, CNNSI.com
At the end of a win, after John Smoltz has smoked the opposition for another save and Bako trots out to the mound with congratulations, things turn intense. Funny intense.
They get in each other's faces. They pump hands. They get physical. They start yelling.
"You're a professional," Bako will say.
"No, you're a pro," Smoltz will counter, poking a finger into his catcher's chest.
"He gets me fired up," says a smiling Smoltz, normally a stone-faced kind of pitcher during his long tenure with the Braves. "We've had a lot of fun with it. It's grown each time. It's something we can do that doesn't show up [the opposition]."
The routine has its roots early in the season. Bako, whose only regular gig was catching Greg Maddux every few days, offered to catch a rehab assignment for Smoltz. It was something the catcher didn't have to do -- he certainly wasn't expected to do such a mundane gig -- but he insisted, and Smoltz took him up on it.
"You're a professional," Smoltz remembers telling him at the time.
And now, after Lopez was felled with an ankle injury that probably will keep him out of the playoffs, Bako and Smoltz find themselves together all the time. Just two professionals playing catch.
Smoltz, the 1996 Cy Young winner, has become one of the premier closers in baseball. He had a 1.59 ERA as a reliever in the regular season and pitched in all three games of the National League Division Series, notching two saves.
Bako, who played in only 61 games this season, is taking full advantage of his opportunity. He hit .500 in the regular season after taking over for Lopez and hit .286 in the three-game sweep of the Astros. He was the offensive star of the game Friday, smacking a two-run homer, knocking in another run with a perfect squeeze bunt and doubling his next time up.
And it's not as if he has nothing else to think about. He left Houston after Game 2 on Wednesday to fly to his home in Lafayette, La., where his wife was about to give birth. He stayed with her Wednesday and through Thursday before flying back to Atlanta early Friday for Game 3.
She still has not delivered.
"Before and after the game, it's a little tough," Bako said of keeping his mind on the game. "During the game, you learn to concentrate on what's going on."
Bako always has been highly thought-of for his ability behind the plate, which is why Maddux uses him almost exclusively. Now, as the Braves move on to the National League Championship Series, he'll be relied on for his hitting, too.
He hit only .212 this season in his limited playing time, with just two homers and 15 RBIs. But, since taking over for Lopez, he's hitting .429.
"It's a lot of fun getting a chance to play every day," he said. "Definitely, at the plate, getting a chance to play [every day] will help anybody's confidence."
It's helped Bako's, for sure. He's responded like a real pro.